Inter-Environnement Bruxelles

France’s coronavirus lockdown pits city vs. country

Publié le mardi 24 mars, par John Lichfield
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France’s coronavirus lockdown pits city vs. country ·

CALVADOS, France — I was sitting in my garden in a Norman hamlet, contemplating the simultaneous arrival of spring and the end of the known world, when something happened.

My dear, occasional neighbors from Paris walked in to say bonjour. Normally, I am delighted to see them.

This time, their arrival punctured my three weeks of self-isolation since the end of February. They had driven 260 kilometers from the western Paris suburbs just before President Emmanuel Macron announced that everyone in France should “stay at home” to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

They have a house and enormous garden in our tiny village. They decided, understandably, that “confinement” would be more pleasant here than in greater Paris.

Escape from cities in times of plague or revolution is an old French tradition.

I am the youngest full-time resident in our hamlet. I am 70 years old. The other six are four octogenarians and a couple in their mid-70s, one of whom has multiple, serious health problems. In other words, we are a COVID-19 cluster waiting to happen.

I did not complain to the Parisian arrivals. How could I ? One of them is the biggest local landowner. I am an immigrant from Britain. In their situation I would have probably done the same thing.

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Escape from cities in times of plague or revolution is an old French tradition. From the aristocracy in the Middle Ages to the “grands bourgeois” in the 19th century, it has been common for “the elites to protect themselves” from disease, riot or revolution by having bolt-holes in the country, according to the French sociologist and student of French country life, Jean Viard.

And, of course, it is not just a French tradition. It is said that William Shakespeare wrote "King Lear" in the countryside in 1606 while the plague was raging in London. ("’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”)

As Paris went on lockdown, many residents opted to wait out the coronavirus in the countryside | Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

This small-scale incident of urban invasion was multiplied hundreds of thousands of times all over rural France at the beginning of this week. On Sunday and Monday, just before Macron announced a much-rumored lockdown, Paris railway stations were besieged. The auto routes to the west and the south were jammed.

Every Parisian with a maison secondaire — or with family in the country, the mountains or at the coast — was, it seemed, getting out of town.

France has 3 million second homes. Not all of them belong to Parisians. Many of them belong to residents of other big cities, where the virus is also spreading fast. French media also interviewed students and young professionals who were “going home” to stay with maman et papa.

By the time France’s health and transport ministers and several senior public health officials on Monday begged Parisians and other city-dwellers to stay at home, the exodus was almost over.

Now, under the strict confinement rules applied from Tuesday at midday, with fines of €135 for disobedience, French people can no longer just get in their cars or catch trains or buses to escape the cities.

Still, the damage is likely already done. Rural areas of France — and especially Normandy — have been relatively spared by the disease so far. Now, most people are wondering : for how long ?

“The running joke here is that the virus caught the train at Montparnasse" — Agnès Le Brun, mayor of Morlaix

Other French countryfolk have been less forbearing or reticent than I was about the arrival of big-city neighbors.

“The running joke here is that the virus caught the train at Montparnasse,” said Agnès Le Brun, the mayor of Morlaix in Brittany. “It decided to have a little stay in the countryside.”

Social media and news website comment sections have been choked with angry comments from country people.

Here are a few of them :

Jean-Claude : “These muppets have no comprehension of what the words civic behavior and confinement mean. I saw recently that scientists had connected air pollution with loss of neurons. Here is the living proof.”

Patrick : “I wish these Parisians would bugger off home … I saw lots of them yesterday [Monday, the first day of the lockdown] on the beaches of North Finistère [in Brittany] in cool outfits as if they were on holiday …”

John Lichfield


In English

Dernier ajout : 21 septembre.